“Ode to a Nightengale” by John Keats

A shaded front porch looks upon a verdant scene of oak, crab apple, boxwood, and purple blooming clematis. To the front of the picture, on a wooden bench, rests an open book with penciled annotations. To the right, two dogs rest looking upon the front yard.
A view from our front porch.

This morning, as with most mornings this summer, I awoke around 6:30 am. I gathered my morning supplies of sharpened pencil, my Everyman’s Library copy of John Keats “The Poems” (see Worldcat), and a mug of coffee. Ollie and Corrie joined me on our front porch. I sat down and read poems aloud. I discovered recently that, for me, a first reading of poetry should be done out loud Robins, catbirds, house sparrows, redwing blackbirds, and others serenaded my reading.

I vocalized my way through most of Book One of “Endymion.” But with border collies ever asking to play frisbee, I found difficulty keeping attuned to the narrative.

Setting Endymion aside, I fluttered through the pages, and settled on “Ode to a Nightengale”. I read through once aloud, then read the editors annotations. Then I read again, and added my personal annotations. What follows is Keats’s poem and my personal annotations.

“Ode to a Nightengale” by John Keats

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains The first 4 lines invoke in me that sense of a deep sleep that follows after days of mourning.
      My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk, Socrates drank a lethal dose.
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains mouth, though “veins” may be used today
      One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk: I’m more familiar with the Greek river Styx, and its waters of forgetfulness
‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
      But being too happy in thine happiness,—
           That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,
                In some melodious plot
      Of beechen green, and shadows numberless, I hear a hint of numbness, invoked from early lines. Instead uncountable, its own overwhelming mental construct.
           Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
      Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
      Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South, Again slipping away with wine (see Lamia 209-213), for a moment feeling our body’s release their grip of our soul and seek the primal forest of shared psyche.
      Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
           With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
                And purple-stained mouth;
      That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
           And with thee fade away into the forest dim:

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget A lament to forget, or more to never have known.
      What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
      Here, where men sit and hear each other groan; Perhaps purgatory? Or the aloneness of old age?
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
      Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies; An infirmary? Illness from tuberculosis?
           Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
                And leaden-eyed despairs,
      Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
           Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
      Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
      Though the dull brain perplexes and retards: Again numbness of mind
Already with thee! tender is the night, Now the dream, no transport, to a land beyond
      And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
           Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays;
                But here there is no light,
      Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown Light in this dream world is as wisps of smoke, something that can be blown around
           Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
      Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet the dead, in funeral parlor, surrounded by flowers, embalmed to preserve a semblance in life
      Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
      White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
           Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves;
                And mid-May’s eldest child,
      The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
           The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves. A stretch but Beelzibub, “Lord of Flies”. Pestilence coming as summer heat overcomes springs cooler growth.

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time These 4 lines, a strong yearning for oblivion.
      I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
      To take into the air my quiet breath;
           Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
      To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
           While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
                In such an ecstasy!
      Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
             To thy high requiem become a sod. Drunk on the song of the nightengale

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
      No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
      In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path I love the “self-same song” alliteration, and that the Nightengale’s song, unchanging, eternal, drives through psyche and soul
      Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
           She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
                The same that oft-times hath
      Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
           Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell Awakened in a moment. A death’s bells toll or call to mass? A conjuring home? Returning from a Jungian sub-world, of Hebrew Biblical myth and Greek myths
      To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
      As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
      Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
           Up the hill-side; and now ‘tis buried deep
                In the next valley-glades:
      Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
           Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep? Which is more real? Where is my soul at ease?

Further Readings

update: Reading the poem again, I feel the pull of words that rest at the boundaries life and death: aches, numbness, drowsy, pains, hemlock, dull, drains, sunk, shadows, leave, unseen, viewless, dull, night, glooms, embalmed, darkness, fading, flies, eves, darkling, death, quiet, pain, soul, vain, requiem, death, sad, sick, tears, perilous, forlorn, toll, fades, buried, dream, fled.